Thursday, August 15, 2013

Answering Dawkins Part 2

Yesterday I offered my answers to some stated questions on famed atheist Richard Dawkins' website for secularism. Yesterday's post examined questions about free will, morality and meaning.

Today is the second installment, and the questions again come directly from Dawkins' website:

Purpose. Do teleological concepts play a useful role in our description of natural phenomena?

Epistemology. Is science unique as a method for discovering true knowledge?

(Skipped question on Emergence and reductionism) 

Consciousness. How do the phenomena of consciousness arise from the collective behavior of inanimate matter?

The question pertaining to purpose is more familiar to the rest of us as, "Why am I here?", and is strangely universal across humankind. The fact that we ask the question suggests, to me at least, that legitimate grounds exist  for our inquiry; that in fact, there really may be a 'why' element to our existence.  After all, do we ever ask about things that are completely unfamiliar and unknown to us?  We may ponder the plausibility of  life on other planets, because we observe life here, and its requirements, and are naturally inclined to wonder if those far away worlds might also be hospitable to life.  But this musing presumes that the possible life we contemplate will be recognizable to us as life, that it will be in some small way similar to what we know to be life. It will be familiar. I believe that all of our inquiries about 'unknowns' are  fixed in the familiar, even if quite distantly, thereby making them not so much unknowns, but rather as yet undiscovered, unexplored prospects.

So when we inquire as to our purpose the question stems from a context that is vaguely familiar to us, as if nearby, though not yet grasped.  It is familiar to us because it is coded by our maker into our very being.  Romans 1:19 says, "...since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse."

God uses creation, from the tiniest, complex component of a microorganism to the vastness of the cosmos as a universal language that points to his own existence and primacy, that we might observe nature and look for the source of its genius.  We are here primarily to be loved by God, and to know and love him, and by extension, his creation.

Epistemology. Is science unique as a method for discovering true knowledge?
Now there's a word I don't throw around on a weekly basis.  Basically, epistemology asks 'How do we know what we know is right and true?', and 'by what   avenues do we obtain knowledge, and are they valid?'

It is peculiar that the question on Dawkins' website is qualified with the adjective 'true' before the word knowledge. Because science is limited to the five senses, it is only interested in one kind of knowledge and it presumes that this one variety of knowledge represents the sum of all knowledge to be had, and anoints it as 'true' knowledge.

Yet consider civilization.  We tend to think of it as buildings and infrastructure and order and economy. But in reality, the civilized world exists because of an invisible and immaterial quality known as Integrity.  Integrity is doing the right thing - the promised and principled thing, even at the expense of damage or peril to the doer.  The global economy is built upon words, written and spoken, that promise to repay borrowed monies.  If one day every corporation, government and individual with outstanding loans suddenly said, 'Nah, I'm not going to repay that debt', we witness total economic collapse and failure. Lending would cease, and each person, government or corporation would have only its own existing capital to work with. Economies and civilizations are built upon words, because words convey intent, and intent must be coupled with integrity, or we are left with just so much alphabet soup dancing on parchment.  Promises are down payments on integrity.  I am unclear as to how science could study a promise. And yet, the promise is a powerful 'thing' that is unseen, untouchable, unheard and unknown, until made good on. Up to that point it is merely believed.  And after that point, it is no longer a promise, but a fact.

Trust is another means of obtaining knowledge. We trust (rightly or wrongly) the words of others.  We trust their experiences when they witness events. Without this source of knowledge, life in the courtroom would be very dull and inconclusive. Scientists trust the words of other scientists, even in the absence of repeatable claims. Much of evolutionary science is by consensus, and highly subjective extrapolations are made with the best of intentions.  The Bible is God's revelation of himself,  written using human minds at God's own urging. It has been given to mankind as an unchanging record of who he is, and how he has interacted with humanity throughout history. Much of the Bible is a retelling of real people's personal experiences with God. Through their recorded experiences we obtain knowledge.

So while it is true that science seeks knowledge, it does not necessarily seek the truth.

Consciousness.  How do the phenomena of consciousness arise from the collective behavior of inanimate matter?  

The question seems to be asking, "How do mindless atoms manage to collect themselves  into arrangements capable of asking questions such as "why are we here?".

They don't, is the short answer.  Does anyone seriously look at a printout of computer code and think for a moment that the order and meaning inherent in the code is the product of random chance? Don't we intuitively know that a human being skilled in the language of computers organized the code into coherent strings that would be cogent to a computer?  And yet we want to look at a DNA molecule and attribute it to chance. So, who is this Chance guy? Chance is not a being, nor is it even a thing. Chance is a no-thing.... or we could shorten that to nothing. It is one of those things that science would be ill-equipped to study, because it is precisely what hasn't yet happened. It stands in the gap between two or more outcomes, ready to take credit for whichever one prevails. Chance is nothing.  Human beings, on the other hand, are really something.

Consciousness is the awareness we possess of our own existence. It facilitates our reaching beyond our own physical confines to obtain knowledge through inquiry - scientific and otherwise.  With it we examine our place in the cosmos as we think contextually and contemplate the effect of our behavior on others. In so doing, we exhibit an integral part of our humanness: our conscience. Without a conscience, our ability to perceive the existence of  good and bad, of right and wrong, does not exist.  Do away with conscience, and integrity is not possible. And as integrity goes, so goes civilization.

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